Union journals shed light on Minamata disease

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

Journals detailing the activities of the now-disbanded labor union of Chisso Corp., responsible for the outbreak of the mercury-poisoning disease in Kyushu in the 1950s, have been reprinted to throw fresh light on how its members struggled to support victims of the pollution and confronted their employer over the tragedy.

The disease became known as Minamata disease after the city in Kumamoto Prefecture where it was first identified in 1956.

People were affected after eating mercury-contaminated marine products caught in the Shiranui Sea, adjacent to Minamata and other cities in Kumamoto Prefecture. A similar disease was detected some years later in Niigata Prefecture.

Almost all of the union’s Siren journals, published between Feb. 20, 1951 and March 19, 2003, have been reprinted by Kumamoto Gakuen University in Kumamoto Prefecture and Tokyo-based Kashiwashobo Publishing Co.

The journal took its name from the siren that was sounded in the city of Minamata, where the chemical’s plant is located, to announce the start and end of normal working hours.

The disease was officially recognized in 1956, and union members, while seeking better labor conditions, gradually turned their eyes to the responsibility of their employer, who discharged tainted wastewater into Minamata Bay, as well as to their own responsibilities.

The highlight of the union’s efforts came on Aug. 30, 1968, when it declared that it was “shameful as human beings and as workers to do nothing for the victims and to not tackle the Minamata issue, and we have to regret it from the bottom of our heart,” one journal entry said.

The union then began to urge its members to see that addressing Minamata disease also meant addressing unfair labor practices, calling on them to stand up for sufferers and testify at damages suits on their behalf.

“They are valuable documents that present not only labor campaigns but also social history involving workers in Japan’s postwar high economic growth era,” said Masanori Hanada, director and professor at Kumamoto Gakuen’s Open Research Center for Minamata Studies.

The union disbanded before its last two members reached retirement age in 2005. Siren ran through 3,238 issues.

Although the 24-volume reprinted edition is priced at around ¥1.2 million, some universities at home and abroad, including Harvard and Yale in the United States, have decided to purchase it, according to Ojiro.

Yoshihiro Yamashita, who served as union president from 1978 to 1990, said of the reprinting: “We raised the issues not only of Minamata disease but also of labor accidents and vocational diseases in our journals. They are the history of working people in Minamata.”

Yamashita, 72, also said he sees something in common between the Minamata issue and the nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture, caused by the March 2011 quake-tsunami disaster.

“The operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 complex seems to place priority on corporate benefit over human life while remaining reluctant to take full responsibility for the crisis, as we saw in the Minamata issue,” he said. “Various issues our union faced can still be encountered even today.”

The number of officially recognized Minamata disease patients now stands at around 3,000, including some in Niigata. But more than 65,000 people have applied for the government’s latest redress program for uncertified sufferers, indicating resolution is still far off.